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Green Cheap: A Poor Student’s Guide to Eco-Consciousness

Situation: you’re an upper-level MSU student. Tuition is going up. You don’t have millions of dollars stashed under your floorboards or a close, personal relationship with a Rockefeller.

Solution: You decide to move out of the dorms and find somewhere less expensive to live. You sign a lease and kick back and wait for the savings from low rent and no meal plan to roll in.

They don’t.

Such was the case for James Madison social relations and policy major Kelsey Stewart and for numerous other MSU students.

In her junior year, Stewart rented an older house in Lansing, expecting that after she was free from the costs of the dorms, her budget problems would be over. What she discovered was her energy use was more costly than she ever dreamed.

Replacing traditional bulbs with CFLs can result in energy savings.

“It really is difficult to understand when you’ve never done it before,” Stewart said. “[I don’t think students] realize how much your bill is going to be a month. [Though] I’m splitting it through several people, I still get the bill and I can see exactly how much electric money I spent this month, and it’s a lot.”

Stewart, like many students, is environmentally conscious. She would like to reduce her carbon footprint, both for the environment and her pocketbook, but often finds she can’t get past the cost.

“The thing with green technology is it costs more up front and you have to wait for that to come back,” she said. “It always comes back, but it takes time. With a house that you’re renting for a year, or that the energy savings would really only come in the winter or for a few months, it just doesn’t make sense. Also, we are college students. We don’t have large amounts of money to pay for that upfront. And if your landlord’s not paying your utilities, he has no benefit from making your house more efficient.”

Joel Wiese, marketing and development director of Michigan Energy Options, agrees. Michigan Energy Options is a nonprofit organization striving to educate Michigan residents and businesses about sustainability and energy efficiency. It offers workshops, free energy audits, and tours of its demonstration centers in Marquette and on Grove Street in East Lansing.

It’s hard for students, who can’t make permanent changes to their homes and apartment, to reduce their carbon footprints, Wiese said. But there are opportunities. He suggests student renters talk to their landlords about undergoing a free energy audit. Minor changes, like sealing drafts with caulk or switching out appliances for those with energy star certification, can save a bundle—from $1,000 to $3,000, according to Wiese. Also, landlords who act on the audit suggestions will be able to advertise that their residences have low utility bills.

According to Wiese, there are small changes that students themselves can make to their houses to reduce their bills as well.

“Our demonstration house has a lot of different ideas for things you can do, like putting on faucet aerators, or switching from incandescent light bulbs to CFLs, which use a fourth of the energy. So we’ve got a lot of things like that that are cheap, inexpensive ways to help winterize the home a little better. And yeah, you might spend $10, $12 on that, but it will help,” he said.

But getting students to make changes to their lifestyles can also be challenging.

“Anything that goes against a person’s economic sense is going to be difficult to get people to buy into,” said James Madison professor Michael Craw. “Products, for example, that are more eco-friendly, you oftentimes have to be pay a premium for. Eco-friendly laundry detergent is often more expensive than our non-eco-friendly laundry detergent, so you’re not as inclined to buy that. But there are ways that are pretty costless, that really just require a lifestyle change that makes sense.”

Eric Merckling is the owner of Scavenger Hunt Vintage clothing store in East Lansing and the Scavenger Hunt-Eco in Old Town, Lansing, opened in 2006. In Merckling’s stores, vintage clothing is considered a type of recycling, and furniture and knickknacks are “repurposed” into new goods.

“Once I started doing this, it occurred to me more and more that you don’t have to adopt the lifestyle 100 percent,” Merckling said.

“Any little difference you can make for the better is something. So, I try to stress that with people. I’m not a diehard eco-friendly tree-hugging person. I just thought, ‘oh, well here’s something we can do. We’re already doing this [in East Lansing] and we’re trying to do a business in a time when things are really bad, so if it has a good conscious overall, we can’t feel bad about it.’”

Merckling believes the high cost of eco-friendly goods keeps students at bay.

“Everybody’s interested in it [eco-friendly goods] but the price can be high, so not everybody can afford it,” he said. “The processes are more expensive to do the organic. I think it has a lot to do with supply, the fact that we’re just not in a green economy, a green industry right now. We don’t have the foundations in place, so everything is smaller in resource, therefore, more expensive to do.”

Cost, likewise, dominates students’ decisions to join in things like energy conservation programs, according to Stewart.

“I would participate [in an audit] if it wasn’t going to cost me any money, because even if it’s not going to save me money, it’s still going to save in the long run. It’s the money that seems to be the contributing factor. I don’t think that college students are anti-environmentally friendly. Everyone wants to be environmentally friendly … but we can’t afford to spend the money that [it costs] or a lot of times, the time. Time is also really a prohibitive factor for our participation in a truly green economy,” she said.

True, students like Stewart can’t commit to large home sustainability improvements, but making small changes (and gently nudging landlords) can bring about bigger savings than most students realize.

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